Writing Tips from Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, author of Bittersweet

We know readers tend to be writers too, in this feature, we’ll share writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I believe that story comes from character; I have to know my characters inside and out in order to write a novel that’s halfway worth reading. That said, I’m also a big fan of trusting my gut. When I was starting my novel Bittersweet, Mabel Dagmar began speaking to me very early in the game, long before I knew how untrustworthy she is or exactly what had happened over the course of the summer in which the book takes place. I took dictation for about fifty pages, until I knew she had a hold on me; then I went back to the drawing board and really got to know her by thinking about her all the time, filling out a character sheet on her, and imagining who and what she would come in contact with that would challenge her. Once I know a character well, I’m able to ask what she wants, deep down, in her core. Everyone wants something. A novelist’s trick is to write a story that aligns many wants to support a thematic idea, without it looking like that’s what I’m doing. As plot grows, it’s valuable to understand whether a character’s desires align with that central idea; if they don’t, out she goes. Bittersweet is the story of Mabel getting what she wants, plain and simple, but it took me a long time to understand what that was and how the book would tell that story. I’m also a big believer in casting (in my mind) a real actor (preferably someone I’ve seen on screen in a number of different roles) to play each of my main characters. That way, when I’m stumped about how a character would drink a cup of coffee or walk down the street, it’s easy to see her with my own eyes (plus, then I get to call watching a movie “research,” which is just one of the thousand reasons I love my job). And revision is my best friend, because I can stretch the limits of my characters and then pull back in the next draft after I’ve learned how they would or wouldn’t react. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I need to write about fifty pages in order to understand whether the story I’ve imagined actually has legs; if I can’t make fifty pages work, then there’s no way I’ll be able to compose four hundred. In these first fifty I’m looking for moments that crack me up, that make me afraid, that feel risky, that open my up to questions about the book I didn’t know I had when I first started it. If I don’t discover something new in those early weeks of work, then I know I haven’t found my next book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I used to be much more precious about my writing rituals; becoming a mother definitely cured me of that! But strangely (or maybe not so strangely) my most productive two years of creative work to date came right after giving birth: I wrote a novel and two screenplays, and produced a short film. I think the secret lies in the preciousness of childcare; if I only have two hours to work in a day, I’m not going to squander it, whereas in the unscheduled days before my son was born, it was easy to while away the hours. I’m lucky to have both a home office and a great local café (where I wrote most of Bittersweet). But if I’m alone at home, I’m just as likely to spread out on the dining room table as I am on my son’s bottom bunk. I’m currently in the final push on a novel called June. I’m writing from a pretty strict chapter outline that I’ve developed over the course of the past year. When I sit down to write on a given day, I use this outline as a roadmap. Its signposts and landmarks are the actions and beats I know need to be accomplished in the scene at hand, even if I don’t know exactly how I’ll get from A to B. The fun lies in discovering. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? As a kid I loved theater. In my childhood out in Oregon, I went to this amazing camp where we did Shakespeare every summer. As a result, without trying to ingrain the five-act structure inside myself, it is. Also, I grew up advocating for the characters I was inhabiting, as actors are wont to do. Both traits have served me well as a writer. Of course, I thought I wanted to be an actor, but in college I realized I’d have a lot more power (and probably be just as poor) in the writing life. I wrote a creative thesis in college. It was the first time I’d written anything longer than twenty pages, and I just fell in love. I realized I had it in me to create whole worlds. But I didn’t know if this could actually be my job until I was working at the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y and met people like Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and José Saramago and Saul Bellow, and saw a more direct connection between the books I loved and the people who made them. While I was at the Y, I wrote The Effects of Light, which was to become my first published novel; got an agent; and then revised it for her for a year before we sold it. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? My parents were great believers in my sister and me pursuing creative fields. What they gave us wasn’t advice as much as it was philosophy. In my sister’s forthcoming documentary, my mom says “You know who you are by what you make,” and this idea still very much drives who I am. I’ve learned that I’m a lot happier when I’m working on a novel than when I’m not, mainly because when I’m writing a novel, I’m my most “me”—I recognize myself. I see this in my six-year-old too; he’s a lot happier when he’s engaged in a big, sweeping art project. Maybe that’s just him/us? Maybe that’s a trait many of us have as children, and we’re taught not to value it (because it’s not quantifiable or easily applied to a business model), so when we grow up, we leave it behind? A few months ago I was with my family up in the cabin in Vermont that inspired Bittersweet, and I looked around the main room: my father was transcribing his field notes from West Africa for use in the book he’s writing; my mother was working on her book series; my sister was working on her screenplay; my son was meticulously decorating a tall stack of valentines; and I was writing June. I often meet fellow parents who tell me they’re concerned because their child wants to become a writer or an artist. Yes, it can be a bumpy path, but it’s incredibly rewarding in some pretty fundamental ways that we don’t always honor culturally. I wish for the children of those parents to get to be given the gift I was, of belief and support. For all its hardship, I wouldn’t give up my career for anything! Read more about Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s book, Bittersweet.

Three Questions for VP and Publisher Marian Wood on Editing Sue Grafton

On the occasion of Marian Wood Books’ publication of X, Sue Grafton’s 24th Kinsey Millhone Mystery, we are pleased to present Vice President and Publisher Marian Wood. As Grafton’s longtime editor, she agreed to answer three questions involving her work with Grafton. Marian admits, “These questions brought sort of a walk down memory lane: 34 years of memories, to be exact. Foolishly, I went to my bookshelves and picked up A is for Alibi and began reading, and couldn’t stop.” What initially attracted you to Sue Grafton’s writing style and her approach to the mystery novel form? Well, although Sue never writes the same novel twice and her books consistently surprise me, rereading “A” brought back that incredible rush I had on my first reading. Here was an original voice: tough, funny, smart, without an ounce of self-pity but also without any superhero ego. From the first I knew she was a serious stylist, that her characters were fully formed and she was using genre the way earlier mystery writers (the men who gave us noir) had: to make telling points about the (largely corrupt) world their characters moved in. Be it Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald, their protagonists were loners, honest but flawed (and usually, unlike Kinsey, very heavy drinkers), who took on cases the way a knight errant might take on causes. The world Kinsey navigates is not as corrupt as theirs, but it is often just as twisted and dangerous. SueGraftonABCtnail In “A,” Kinsey tells us she is 32, twice divorced, no kids, no pets, no houseplants. In short, she is independent and alone. What we learn as the series progresses is that she is also nobody’s sidekick. Unlike so many female characters in the mysteries that preceded her appearance, she is not a loyal helpmate or willing employee or second banana. Now, how refreshing is that? And when she finds herself in serious danger, she is tough enough to fight her way out—even when it means killing or maiming her attacker. But it bothers her that she has to. So in addition to being tough and honest, she has a conscience. Mayhem for mayhem’s sake is not on her resume. Her novels also do not depend on technology or gadgets for their denouements. Brains and determination are what matter. There are no James Bond gimmicks, and no saviors in white hats to come to Kinsey’s rescue. Through Kinsey, Sue is able to wrestle with some very current social ills. She doesn’t preach, but she does observe. And her intelligence in these matters raises the books to another level. You won’t find her giving facile answers to homelessness, but you will find her pointing out all sides of the problem. How you take this is your call as a reader. Sue is not here to convert you—but she wants readers to understand the human toll such problems take. And she is not here to solve our social problems. She can’t tell us how to stop the abuse of elders, for example. But she can, in horrible detail, show you how it happens. SueGraftonENDtnaail Perhaps this makes the books sound “heavy.” They are hardly that. One of the very great attractions of Sue Grafton’s writing is just how clever (both witty and funny) Kinsey is and how tellingly Sue leads her characters into crazy (but all too real) human interactions. And a large part of her success in doing this is that she has such a terrific grasp of the human condition, which is another reason her characters resonate long after you’ve finished the book. How would you describe the nature of your editor/author process when working with Sue Grafton and how has it evolved over the years? Our relationship is based on trust and mutual respect. Sounds corny, but it’s true. There may have been a few bumps early on because Sue bore some real scars from her years of working with Hollywood know-it-alls (“They all seemed to be barely out of high school,” she has said). Books, however, are not movies, and editing is a matter of supporting the writer not taking over her book. (Some of you may know of instances of editors taking credit for the quality of their writer’s book. Personally, if the writing was that bad to begin with, I’d want no part of it.) With Sue, as the years and books progressed, our working relationship, never problematic to begin with, became a sheer delight. Sue is a professional and a dedicated craftswoman. I like to think the same applies to her editor. There have been a few occasions during the writing when the plot line seems temporarily to stall out. Sue says dreaming often resolves a knotty plot line, and I say that what cannot be resolved in dreams is usually a relatively easy fix that a trusted reader can suggest. Mostly that first reader is her husband, Steve Humphrey. As someone who was long-married to a writer, I know the pitfalls that can happen when a spouse is called upon to read, but in the 34 years I’ve known them, their working relationship has been nothing short of miraculous. What has contributed to the popularity of the Kinsey Millhone character and the series, and what elements in the new novel, X, do you feel will resonate most strongly with readers? Sue never runs in place. I have read many writers who begin a series wonderfully and then, at about book 4 or 5, stall out. The books become padded, the plots are listless, the characters repeat themselves. Not so Sue. In fact, Sue brings a freshness and originality to each new book. Even those instances in which she needs to reintroduce a character from an earlier book or reprise some earlier plot line–so that a reader coming new to the series need not begin with “A”—are deftly handled and, for the veteran reader, often contain welcome new information. I think the reason the series continues to appeal so strongly is that Sue takes her writing very seriously. To turn in a listless effort would be to cheat her readers—and herself. SueGraftonSUVtnail The second part of your question is harder to answer because it would give away much of the plot of X. Let me just say this: There are three extraordinary plot lines in X. The reader will initially be hard pressed to know which is the prime plot, which secondary. But all are supremely interesting. One is outrageous—but many of us will be familiar with the neighbors from hell and, in its own way, it is very comic. Another is a complex scam that has grown out of the broken marriage of two hot-tempered people who should have taken the time to cool down. And the third? It is the harrowing story of a vicious sociopathic serial killer who has left a trail of dead women going back nearly thirty years. The victims have either been declared suicides or they have simply vanished. The killer is at large, and Kinsey is in his sight lines. Dark, chilling, and clever, X is also infinitely wise in the matter of human misbehavior—or why we are often our own worst enemy. Read more about X here.

Writing Tips from Jules Moulin, author of Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? For me, learning different ways to structure a story was crucial, and still is! I’m always on the lookout for great structuring tips. While outlining, in order to ensure causal plotting, I use the phrase “WHICH CAUSED” between scenes. For example: “The queen caught a cold. The queen died. The king died.” This isn’t causal plotting. But “The queen caught a cold.” WHICH CAUSED “The queen to die of that cold.” WHICH CAUSED “The king to die of heartbreak.” This helps me to make sure that one moment causes the next moment. How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I have a background in journalism, so I recommend reporting — even for fiction. For Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes, I called a slew of Sex and Gender professors (not unlike my main character Ally) and interviewed them, asking questions about anything and everything including their jobs, daily schedules, likes and dislikes, opinions on current events, etc. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I actually do everything at once: I start writing scenes that I’m 90 percent sure will end up in the story, I start researching, and I start outlining. And most importantly, I start imagining the ending so that I can start planning the beginning. My outline is fluid and evolving — I go back and make changes to my outline throughout the writing process so that I complete the outline only a short while before I finish the book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Yes! I work in cafes mostly, where I have endless access to coffee and WiFi, and if I have serious, important writing to do, I plug into my earphones and listen to the Dave Matthews Band! Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? No. I wanted to be an actress. I actually still do, but I’m too chicken. But everything I know about writing came from years and years of studying acting. I studied everywhere, with everyone; learned how to break down a scene, how to create and motivate character, how to write dialogue, etc. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? That you should try to write every day, even if it’s just for ten or twenty minutes. I don’t do this — but every writer I admire gives this advice and says they heed it! What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? My worst habit is not writing daily, for sure. I’m pretty good about not using adverbs. Adverbs are deadly, unless you’re J.K. Rowling, who uses them all the time, so go figure… Read more about Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes here.